Submitted by VP of Product Strategy, Dave Bowen
The week of June 3-7 was a busy one for the FAA. In addition to hosting the FAA UAS Symposium in Baltimore and the first meeting of the rebooted Drone Advisory Committee (DAC), a number of announcements were made of high-profile waiver approvals and certifications awarded to different companies exploring advanced operations.
FAA Waiver Approvals and Certifications
Amazon Prime Air announced the receipt of a special airworthiness certificate for a new hybrid VTOL/fixed-wing aircraft, publicly unveiled last week. The certificate allows Prime Air “to operate its unmanned aircraft for research and development and crew training in authorized flight areas,” less permissive than the full Part 135 air carrier certification that rival Google Wing received in April, but still a significant step forward.
Meanwhile, Israeli drone parachute company Parazero announced that its customer Hensel Phelps had received a first-of-its-kind waiver from FAA regulation Part 107.39. This allows Hensel Phelps’ pilots to operate a DJI Phantom 4 Pro drone kitted out with Parazero’s ASTM-compliant SafeAir Phantom Parachute System directly over people. Utilizing the ASTM documentation supplied by Parazero with its parachute system will allow other companies to apply for waivers using the same application format, hopefully streamlining and providing clarity around a somewhat arcane process.
So, does this mean that the floodgates are about to open on the issuing of approvals by the FAA for further integration of drones into the NAS? Not so fast. While these announcements are significant milestones, much work still needs to be done to bolster rule-making that will reduce the need for individualized waivers under Part 107 and make fundamental improvements to waiver processing itself. The FAA acknowledged as much at the DAC meeting on Thursday.
Amongst task groups set to address commonly acknowledged challenges like Remote ID, BVLOS flight, and Counter-UAS technologies, the DAC also appointed Brian Wynne, the President and CEO of AUVSI, to lead a group specifically focused on producing recommendations to improve the waiver process. In particular, this group will be looking at ways to improve transparency from the FAA before, during, and after the waiver application filing process, hopefully leading to reduced uncertainty for businesses considering filing. This is a substantial acknowledgement of a serious issue, and hopefully the group will produce useful recommendations that the FAA takes to heart.
Remote ID Progress
Remote ID still remains, in many respects, the thorniest challenge that the FAA is grappling with. Jay Merkle, Executive Director of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, confirmed at the DAC meeting that the expected publication date of the NPRM for Remote ID was being pushed back to September from July this year. A full Remote ID rule may now be as many as 24 months away.
This is a significant hurdle towards rulemaking progress across other areas as Remote ID will form the bedrock of the eventual UAS Traffic Management (UTM) system and will also be key to actualizing other rules, including the operations over people rule that is currently under revision. Even after it is officially published, the operations over people rule will not take full effect until Remote ID is sorted out. In some respects, the sheer multitude of dependencies that Remote ID is bearing has slowed down the development of the rule as the FAA seeks a rock-solid rule that will not negatively affect other rulemakings through improper design and immature rollout.
Nevertheless, the FAA has acknowledged the mounting business impact that Remote ID delay will have for the commercial drone sector. The FAA established a DAC task force to provide recommendations within 90 days suggesting ways in which industry-led voluntary compliance with certain Remote ID standards and technologies could prompt reciprocal incentives from the FAA in the short-term. While it’s still quite unclear what these incentives might be, the FAA suggested reviewing Remote ID standards already developed by 3rd-party SDOs like ASTM to help determine the suggested Remote ID rules and technologies that could be voluntarily adopted. The DAC appointed Steve Ucci, Senior Deputy Majority Leader of the Rhode Island State Assembly, to head that group.
Overall, this has been an exciting few months for the advancement of drone regulations in the US, but much remains to be done to maximize the global competitiveness of the US commercial drone market. That being said, it is encouraging to see the FAA reach out to industry and consider not just the end state of drone rules, but what improvements can be made in the short term to drive growth while maintaining the safety of our airspace.